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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Taxonomy of Apology...

Today we have apologies from Larry Johnson (the Kansas City Chiefs running back) and Alan Grayson (the Democratic Congressman).  I’ve attached links so you can see why they are apologizing—or really if they are apologizing at all.  I’ve thought from time to time about the grammar of apology, and the ways that people (especially, especially lawyers) can so deftly apologize without ever really admitting fault.  And so having some excess time this afternoon and getting a kick out of amusing myself with this—and inspired by the carefully crafted apologies of those like Kanye West, Serena Williams, and Mark Sanford—I’ll take a stab at laying out some basic categories of apology.

(1) “I’m sorry.”  “I’m sorry for what I did to you.”  “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”  The basic normal apologies, the gold standard—only rarely heard in legal practice.

(2) “I’m sorry I couldn’t pick you upI was running late.”  This is an apology with a bit of an excuse added in at the end.  But there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that though.  Sometimes people want an explanation as to why you messed up.

(3) “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”  Here the nuance begins.  Note its conditional nature: I’m not categorically or unreservedly apologizing.  If it turns out that I didn’t hurt your feelings, I’m not sorry (or at least maybe I’m not).  Still, again I think that there’s nothing necessarily improper with this type of apology.  Sometimes you can’t quite tell if your mistakes caused the sort of harm for which an apology is appropriate. 

(4) “I’m sorry if the fact that I failed to pick you up on time somehow made you late.”  This is the apology with an element of disputation; the word “somehow” here changes the whole thing.  I am questioning whether my mistake caused you harm.  I may be disputing causation (you would have been late anyway) or maybe I’m alleging contributory fault (you could have gotten there without me).  Here a lot will depend on how the word “somehow” is uttered.  If it’s said quickly, it may go over okay.  If it’s drawn out and used quasi-sarcastically, it’s entirely different.  (And if you use it quasi-sarcastically and the other party picks up on it, quickly play dumb and maintain the illusion that you don't know what they are angry about.)

(5) “I’m sorry you took offense at what I said.”  This one is my favorite—it’s a textbook non-apology apology, and I’m sure I’m as guilty as anyone at using it.  It’s a close cousin to the oft-overheard at faculty meetings, “I’m sorry you misunderstood what I was saying.”  It’s quite different from things like, “I’m sorry John didn’t get back to you, but I can help you now”—because it suggests that it is precisely the offended party that is being the unreasonable one.  A normal person wouldn’t have taken offense, but you apparently are either too thin skinned and overly sensitive or too dimwitted to understand that what I did was actually not offensive.

Finally, having written all this, I realize one thing remains to be said.  To my wife reading this in cyberspace, I am truly sorry for never apologizing right.

Posted by Chris Lund on October 28, 2009 at 05:53 PM | Permalink


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Language Log has covered the non-apology apology in some detail over the past few years.

Posted by: Garrett Wollman | Oct 30, 2009 11:20:27 PM

Thanks, guys, for all the comments -- I realize I hadn't covered the half of it. I got a good laugh out of Orly's, "I am sorry I am not the person you thought/wanted me to be." And Dave made me think of my students coming in, having gotten a bad grade on an exam, to which I always say something like, "I'm sorry you did badly." Of course I have to immediately follow up with some awkward thing about how I'm not the root cause/fault of them doing badly -- I'm just sorry in the regret sense, not the apology sense. And TJ, that's a good point -- I hadn't thought of it that way.

P.S. My colleague, Jon Weinburg, dropped a suggestion to me about an academic book on the subject by Nick Smith, titled "I Was Wrong." Jon says that about half the book is on the elements of the apology -- and what it means when an apology lacks one of the necessary elements...

Posted by: Chris Lund | Oct 29, 2009 4:30:08 PM

Awesome post. I've thought about this a lot too. The difficulty resides in the dual meaning of "sorry": it can express regret that something unfortunate happened and/or apology. Hence, "I'm sorry about the loss of your father" never means "I am apologizing for causing your father's death". By contrast, "I'm sorry I made us arrive late" means apology, as in "I am taking the blame and accepting responsibility for causing us to be late".

This is where tone is critical. "I'm sorry you're upset" can be a classic non-apology apology because it often means nothing about acceptance of fault, but only "I recognize that you are upset, and that is unfortunate--I wish it wasn't so". By contrast, "I'm sorry I upset you" is better because it acknowledges causation and comes closer to expressing personal wrongdoing rather than just generalized regret about the state of affairs. Of course, the latter is still debatable for the reasons TJ explains. It could mean "I'm sorry I upset you, but of course it's really your fault because of your porcelain-thin ego".

Much of this ambiguity could be avoided, of course, if people would simply say "I apologize for..." rather that "I'm sorry that...", but then clarity would have to force people to concede that they're supplicating themselves because of their own flaws. This is characteristic of lawyers only insofar as lawyers can be both egotistical and prone to casuistry (which is, unfortunately, pretty common in the profession but as the cited examples indicate is not exclusive to them).

Posted by: Dave Fagundes | Oct 29, 2009 2:19:57 AM

I'm not sure that "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings" is really the gold standard. Depends on how it is said. To me, on paper, it still carries the implication that the hurt party is being over-sensitive.

It is also not clear that non-apology apologies are really the domain of lawyers. As a matter of legal tactics, they don't do any good: the jury still draws the inference of admitting fault, and the weasel language just reinforces all the worst preconceptions. Maybe only bad lawyers have the habit.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 28, 2009 10:55:38 PM

i like the taxonomy!

how about "I am sorry I didn't live up to the expectations you had of me"...or "I am sorry I am not the person you thought/wanted me to be"...and - "I am sorry I am a schmuck, can't help it"...and one more: "I am sorry I did this one thing that makes all the other great things I've been doing seem less worthy"...

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Oct 28, 2009 10:53:26 PM

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